In its refusal to acknowledge China’s territorial rights to the artificial islands it has constructed in the South China Sea, the United States sent a destroyer from the 7th Fleet within 12 nautical miles of the islands in order to conduct a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in late October. This strategy of sending U.S. warships and aircraft to the area is intended to deter China from “militarizing” the South China Sea.
It is too soon to tell whether this will actually serve as a deterrent. Indeed, it is possible that China — which has so far responded to the operation with protests and warnings — will interpret these actions as a provocation by the U.S., and use them as a pretext for accelerating the “militarization” of the area through the establishment of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) or other measures. Should this occur, the failed attempt at deterrence could actually trap the U.S. and China in a “security dilemma” in which both countries continue to build up their military preparedness.